Monday, May 23, 2011

A 3500-year-old calendar... in stone

Some weeks ago, on a searing hot morning typical of north Karnataka, we stopped at a site just about 20m off the highway from Shahpur to Bangalore. It was a plantation of tamarind trees, but an unusual one. Interspersed with the trees were about 400 boulders, arranged in a roughly 20 x 20 grid. Scholars have described the grid as being laid with almost mathematical precision, and standing next to one, I could see what they meant. Boulders neatly arranged in straight lines and diagonals stretched out in every direction, but for a few odd ones that seemed to have been slightly displaced. This was the site of Vibhutihalli, where some 3400 to 3800 years ago, ancient people painstakingly created this stone grid to serve as a sort of calendar in stone.

It was Dr NK Rao who demystified the site for me recently, describing how the site was probably
used to track events like solstices and equinoxes. Because so many events in neolithic and megalithic people's lives depended on the seasons, it made immense sense to monitor them. I tried to imagine how it might have worked, but the trees hampered the view and ruined any atmosphere the site might have had: perhaps the only spot in the state where trees should NOT have been planted is, of course, where they have been planted in plenty. I couldn't help but think of Stonehenge. The most celebrated prehistoric celestial observatory in the world draws millions of people every year (including Indians) and is a World Heritage Site. Meanwhile, Vibhutihalli and similar sites in India languish for want of understanding and care. But all is not gloom and doom. Research by Dr Rao and his colleagues is helping people understand such sites. Meanwhile, the Archaeological Survey of India has also taken an interest here. I am hopeful things will look up for this intriguing site.

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